Thursday, March 30, 2006

Police Chief Reinstated

Supporters of Police Chief Edward Santiago rejoiced Thursday (March 30, 2006) after a judge ordered his return to work immediately.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who took office Jan. 1, 2006, placed Santiago on paid administrative leave on Feb. 15, saying it was necessary because Santiago had filed a lawsuit against the city and various officials. But Union County Superior Court Judge John Pisansky found that the city acted improperly, Santiago supporter Flor Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez led a series of protests outside City Hall after Santiago’s removal. On Thursday, a group from Plainfield attended the hearing in Elizabeth where Pisansky made his ruling.

“We are very grateful to know the law prevailed,” she said.

Another interested person at the hearing was Mitchell Sklar, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police.

“What it means is that the city officials have to follow the law,” Sklar said of the ruling.

Sklar said state statutes require due process and a “substantive reason“ for removal of a police chief. In addition, the charges must be presented and the official must be allowed to have a hearing.

“The judge found that the city didn’t comply with the law,” Sklar said. “Nobody is above the law, and that includes cities.”

Neither Santiago nor Robinson-Briggs could be reached for comment Thursday.

Santiago was the city’s first Hispanic police chief when he was appointed in April 1999. But as early as September 199, Santiago drew criticism from black police activists.

Robinson-Briggs had heavy police support during her campaign from the Plainfield Area Ebony Police Association President Kenny Reid and Police Benevolent Association Local 19 President Andre Crawford. After Santiago was placed on administrative leave, Lt. Ron Lattimore was named acting chief. Lattimore is the brother of former Public Safety Director Michael Lattimore, who quit in September 2005 for a public safety position at Rutgers Newark.

At a Democratic City Committee meeting on Feb. 24, Robinson-Briggs recounted her session with Santiago. She said she assured him “it was not a personal thing“ and she was acting on legal advice that she was given.

Robinson-Briggs said she and the chief had a “heart-to-heart“ discussion on his removal.

Santiago’s 2005 lawsuit named both Michael Lattimore and McWilliams, in addition to other officials, seeking expungement of charges related to a one-day suspension.

But since Santiago was forced to step down from his post, his attorney Todd Shea said, Santiago will seek monetary damages.

The fine points meant less to Santiago supporters Thursday.

“Justice prevails,” Sklar said.

“It is a great day for all of us,” Gonzalez said.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: police, law suit